Philip II (1527-1598) was king of Spain from 1556 to 1598. During his reign the Spanish Empire was severely challenged and its economic, social, and political institutions strained almost to the breaking point.
The son of Emperor Charles V, Philip II inherited the larger portion of his father's dominions: Spain, the Low Countries (basically the Netherlands and Belgium of today), Franche-Comté, Sicily and southern Italy, the duchy of Milan, and Spain's colonies in the New World, including Mexico and much of South America. But the inheritance inevitably included the host of problems which his father had left unsolved or which were incapable of being solved. The other part of Charles's dominions, the Holy Roman Empire, was bequeathed to his brother Ferdinand, Philip's uncle.
Philip was born in Valladolid on May 21, 1527, at the outset of the religious and political wars that divided Europe and drained the resources of every major European country. France, the principal opponent of Emperor Charles's ambition, was likewise the chief rival of Philip's Spain. When he acceded to the throne in 1556, the two countries were still at war; peace was concluded at Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, largely because both states were financially exhausted.
The need to find money and enforce order in his territories led to Philip's clash with his Dutch subjects, a clash that produced the first war for national independence in modern European history and eventually drew Philip into the ill-fated Armada expedition. Spain's resources, including its commercial and military lifeline to northern and southern Italy, were meanwhile threatened in the Mediterranean by the Turkish fleet and the incursions of pirates, largely operating out of North African ports.
On the one side combating rebellious Protestant subjects and on the other confronting the advance of Islam, Philip II has often been depicted as the secular arm of the Catholic Church, a religious zealot who sought to erase heresy and infidelity through military conquest. This, however, is a simplification and is misleading. He was indeed a devout Catholic and vitally concerned with the suppression of "heresy" in all the territory over which he ruled. But his policies and choices must also be viewed in the light of what he considered to be Spanish national interests.
Philip's first marriage (1543) was to his cousin Maria of Portugal, who lived but 2 years, leaving a son, Don Carlos.
To consolidate his empire and afford protection for his holdings in the Low Countries, Charles then married Philip to Mary Tudor of England, the Catholic queen of a basically Protestant country. Philip's stay in England was not a happy one, and Mary died in 1558 to be succeeded by her half sister, Elizabeth. His ties with England broken, Philip returned to Spain via Flanders in 1559. In that year the peace treaty with France was signed. The temporary harmony between the two powers was symbolized by Philip's marriage with Elizabeth of Valois, the daughter of the king of France, who proved to be his favorite wife.
Philip had succeeded his father as king of Spain in 1556. Unlike Charles V, Philip was to be a "national" monarch instead of a ruler who traveled from one kingdom to another. Though he was to travel widely throughout the Iberian Peninsula, he would never leave it again.
Personally, Philip was fair, spoke softly, and had an icy self-mastery; in the words of one of his ministers, he had a smile that cut like a sword. He immersed himself in an ocean of paperwork, studying dispatches and documents and adding marginal comments on them while scores of other documents and dispatches piled up on tables and in anterooms.
With the problems of communication in Philip's far-flung empire, once a decision was made it could not be undone. As king, he preferred to reserve all final decisions to himself; he mistrusted powerful and independent personalities and rarely reposed much confidence in aides. This personal stamp of authority during Philip's reign was in
sharp contrast to the era of minister-favorites in 17th-century Spain. His private life included a delight in art, in the cultivation of flowers, in religious reading (his reign coincided with the great age of Spanish mysticism), and above all in the conception and building of the Escorial, the royal palace outside Madrid whose completion was perhaps the greatest joy of his life.
A combination palace, monastery, and mausoleum, the Escorial was Philip's preferred place for working. In a complex that included a place for his own tomb, naturally the thought of his successor concerned Philip greatly. His son Don Carlos was abnormal, mentally and physically, and on no account fit to become a responsible ruler. Philip was aware that contacts had been made between his son and political enemies. He had Don Carlos arrested, and what followed is one of the great historical enigmas: Don Carlos died on July 25, 1568, under mysterious circumstances that have never been explained satisfactorily. Did Philip have his son executed or did he die of natural causes? There is no persuasive proof on one side or the other. This incident was one of the most publicized in Philip's reign and one which naturally served to blacken his reputation. In any event, his fourth marriage, to Anne of Austria, produced five children, one of whom survived to succeed as Philip III.
Relations with Rome
During the Council of Trent (1545-1563) there was usually strong doctrinal accord between the papacy and Spanish bishops. The major difference lay in varying interpretations of the rights of Spanish bishops and their king visà-vis the Holy See. The King had almost total control over the Spanish Catholic Church, and although Spanish arms could advance Catholic interests, if Philip's Spain were to become supreme in Europe the Pope risked being reduced to a chaplain. One momentous occasion when they worked together came in the joint venture of Spain, the Vatican, and Venice against the Turkish navy. At Lepanto, in 1571, the Catholic forces devastated the enemy fleet. It was the most signal victory of Philip's career. Yet, although the Turks soon rebounded, Philip was never again to ally himself so strongly with Rome. The relations between Spain and the Vatican illustrate how senseless it is to speak of the "monolithic nature" of Catholicism in this era.
In an attempt to shore up his depleted treasury and instill more centralization into his dominions, Philip disregarded the prerogatives and local traditions in the Low Countries, the most prosperous of the territories under his rule. In the 1560s he sought to exact more taxes, to impose more bishops, and to reshuffle the administration, thus provoking an increasingly militant opposition.
Protestant attacks upon Catholic churches, coupled with increasing resistance from the predominantly Catholic population, were followed by a severe response from Spain. A Spanish army moved against the rebels, executed several of their leaders, and opened the way to a broader war which lasted throughout Philip's reign. It was truly a war for national independence, with brutality and heroism on both sides and a growing identification of Protestantism (especially Calvinism) with opposition to Spain's political, religious, and economic policies. The rebels, entrenched in the north, declared themselves independent under the name of the United Provinces. The southern part (roughly the area comprising Belgium) remained under Spanish control.
Since the Dutch were subsidized by the English, and since Spanish supply ships could not safely move through the English Channel, Philip concluded that a conquest of England was necessary for the pacification of the Netherlands. But at the same time that the Dutch were in revolt, there were repeated clashes between the French royal armies and French Calvinists. The ups and downs of the warfare in France and in the Netherlands were viewed as barometers of the fortunes of European Protestantism versus Catholicism. After Philip's death, a truce with the Dutch was arranged in 1609. Though war was to break out again, the independence of the United Provinces was recognized in 1648.
The need to cut off English subsidies and control the English Channel so as to throttle the Dutch revolt led Philip to undertake the Armada, the most famous event of his reign. The plan was for a huge fleet to rendezvous with Spanish troops in the Netherlands and then proceed to the military conquest of England, serving Philip's military and political ends and immeasurably injuring the Protestant cause. The skill of the English navy and adverse weather conditions led to a total fiasco. Though most of his ships eventually returned home to port and though Philip still dreamed of a future campaign, the expense of the expedition and the psychological shock of failure resulted in the "invincible" Armada's becoming the symbol of Philip's failure to achieve a Spanish predominance in Europe.
As Philip sought to put down the rebellion in the Netherlands, he fomented dissension in France. French Protestants were sometimes subsidized by Spanish agents to ensure confusion in the enemy camp. Philip tried (unsuccessfully) to install his own candidate on the French throne, and Spanish troops became embroiled in the French wars. The struggle with France drew Spanish strength away from the Netherlands and so eased the pressure on the Dutch rebels. Peace was reached at the Treaty of Vervins in 1598, several months before Philip's death.
The complexity and extent of these foreign ventures had, of course, a tremendous impact on the economy and life of Spain. There was a constant need for money and in a country where only careers in the Church and the army carried prestige and where commerce and manual labor in general were frowned upon, the already-staggering economy was crippled by a series of disasters. The costly adventures abroad were punctuated by abrasive relations between Philip and his Spanish domains over taxation and jurisdiction; a diminishing flow of silver from the American
mines; a decreasing market for Spanish goods; a severe inflation; several declarations of government bankruptcy; and an agricultural crisis that sent thousands into the cities and left vast areas uncultivated. All these, together with plagues and the defeat of the Armada, were crushing blows—economically, socially, and psychologically.
Any one of these myriad problems and crises would have taxed the ingenuity of a government. Taken together and exacerbated by the strain of incessant warfare, they shook Spain to its roots. The union of Portugal to Spain in 1580 may have given Philip satisfaction but hardly lightened his burdens. He worked methodically, even fatalistically, puzzled by the workings of a God who would permit such calamities to occur. Spain had already entered into a period of sharp decline at his death on Sept. 13, 1598, at El Escorial.
Further Reading on Philip II
Although it does not emphasize social and economic issues as much as contemporary studies do, Roger Bigelow Merriman, The Rise of the Spanish Empire in the Old World and in the New, vol. 4 (1934), remains a superb study of Philip II and his reign based on extensive archival research. A good introduction to the Spain of Philip II, with special emphasis on social and economic forces, is John H. Elliott, Imperial Spain, 1469-1716 (1963); it has a fine bibliography. Also excellent are John Lynch, Spain under the Habsburgs, vol. 1 (1964), and H.G. Koenigsberger, The Habsburgs and Europe, 1516-1660 (1971). A lively narrative enriched by verbal portraits of important figures of the time is Edward Grierson, The Fatal Inheritance: Philip II and the Spanish Netherlands (1969). The Armada expedition is brilliantly recounted by Garrett Mattingly in The Armada (1959), one of the finest and most interesting products of modern historical scholarship. Recommended for general historical background are Pieter Geyl, The Revolt of the Netherlands, 1555-1609 (1932; 2d ed. 1958), and John H. Elliott, Europe Divided, 1559-1598 (1969).